Mohammed Emwazi’s Path To The Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 13, 2015


Having written two posts on the overwhelming evidence that the British video-beheader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”), was a longstanding member of an al-Qaeda network in London that funnelled fighters and other resources to al-Shabab in Somalia, refuting the claim that Emwazi’s radicalisation came about after contact with British security services, I now want to offer the remaining available evidence we have on how Emwazi moved from these associations—which he made in 2007—to fighting for ISIS.

To recap, Emwazi was part of a London-based network known as “The London Boys” or Berjawi network, named for Bilal al-Berjawi. In the fall of 2006, Berjawi, Reza Afsharzadegan, Mohammed Ezzouek, Hamza Chentouf, and Shahajan Janjua—all of them British citizens—trained in Somalia with al-Shabab, under the direction of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Harun Fazul), Abdulmalik Mohammed (a.k.a. Abdul Malik Bajabu), and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, operatives acting for al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Incredibly, Afsharzadegan, Ezzouek, Chentouf, and Janjua were rescued from Somalia by the British government and released in London in February 2007. There is good evidence these men returned as sleeper agents for al-Qaeda: to recruit for al-Shabab and await instructions from Osama bin Laden. Berjawi returned to London around the same time, but made his own way.

It is around this time that Emwazi became involved in the network. The security services were much too lax about this cell given that one member (seemingly Berjawi) had contact with Hussain Osman, one of the would-be suicide bombers of July 21, 2005, on the day of that attempted attack. Berjawi moved to Somalia in late 2009 with Walla Eldin Abdel Rahman and Mohammed Sakr to fight for al-Shabab. Both Berjawi and Sakr were killed by U.S. drone strikes in early 2012. Sakr was friend of Emwazi’s since childhood, attending Emwazi’s high school, the Quintin Kynaston academy in north-west London. Another friend of Emwazi’s from Quintin Kynaston was Choukri Ellekhlifi, two years younger than Emwazi and Sakr, who had been a part of Berjawi’s network and was killed in Syria fighting for al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra, in August 2013 after the network started diverting recruits from East Africa to the Fertile Crescent.

Emwazi went to Westminster University between September 2006 and September 2009. While the University is known as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, it is not clear if this is where Emwazi was radicalised and recruited. Afsharzadegan was the network’s chief recruiter and Emwazi was known to be close to him. Other evidence points to a 2007 trip to Kuwait, where Emwazi is said to have met Muhsin al-Fadhli, the former leader of the Iran-based Qaeda network who is now a member of the “Khorasan Group” within Nusra in Syria. Muhsin is said to have converted Emwazi from Shi’ism to militant Sunnism. The truth of this might never be known, but in combination with Emwazi’s known connections—even through cut-outs—to senior al-Qaeda personnel in the Horn of Africa, plus Emwazi’s assigned role guarding foreign hostages once he got inside Syria, it makes a case that he was not merely one of the rank-and-file cannon-fodder Westerners who turn up in Syria.


Jo Shuter, the former head teacher at Quintin Kynaston, said of Emwazi that he “wasn’t a particularly social young man.” These anti-social tendencies seem to have been spotted by ISIS. A former ISIS fighter who met Emwazi in Syria said that Emwazi was hand-selected by ISIS’ psychologists (who knew they had such people?) to take part in the beheading videos and other propaganda. This ex-jihadist adds that Emwazi was “cold” and untalkative, and “wouldn’t join us in prayer … he was strange.” Whether Emwazi is somebody with psychopathic and criminal tendencies who ordered his violent impulses by channelling them through Islamism or whether he is a standard-issue fanatic—a perfectly mentally healthy person convinced by ISIS’ ideology, which is actually what happens with most of the Westerners fighting for the takfiris—remains open to debate. That Emwazi was an essentially harmless person whose radicalism is a complete shock can be dismissed as a fantasy, however.

There is a report in the London Evening Standard that in 2008 a friend of Emwazi’s had gone to Emwazi’s home on the notorious Mozart estate in Queen’s Park to buy a stolen bicycle from Emwazi’s brother, Omar. But the friend was seen by two people who knew he was from the rival Lisson Green estate. Both the friend and Omar were attacked with bricks. In this gang warfare, “people would get stabbed, hit with hammers all the time,” the former friend says. In response, Emwazi appeared with “two religious guys with beards” in Queen’s Park, and they then “drove round in a car and found these two guys who attacked us, threatened them with a gun, made them take all their clothes off and drove off. They dumped them on the M1 motorway. They weren’t attacked physically but they were threatened. It was a message.” The two boys left at roadside were 14-years-old at a time when Emwazi would have been 20.

While the friend says, “Mohammed … wasn’t into gangs,” he also says that Emwazi was “a bit of a hard nut” and “people were wary of him. They were pretty scared.” Had Emwazi been involved in gangs, this would be little surprise: this kind of violent behaviour and petty criminality, with the reports that Emwazi drank vodka and smoked cannabis, only for a stern Salafism to come later, is a well-worn cliché by now.

Emwazi was well-prepared for Salafi jihadism by a furious antisemitism. A schoolmate of Emwazi’s recalls that when they were taught about the Nazi genocide, “I heard Mohammed mutter ‘Good. They deserved it’. I thought he was joking but later he told me that he hated all Jews and blamed them for the plight of Muslims. He really meant it. He absolutely hated Jews. If we ever walked past a house in Golders Green that he knew was owned by a Jew he would shout obscenities, calling them names like ‘fucking pigs’.” In January, a reporter who visited Sevran, one of the many notorious banlieues ten miles north of Paris, found the same thing: the population was not conventionally religious—wanting to be rappers and having much involvement in petty criminality—but they all harboured an intense hatred of Jews.

The boundary between criminal networks and Britain’s long-standing Salafi jihadist networks in London has proven to be porous. A personal link between these two communities is Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, who had previously been suspected to be “Jihadi John”. Bary, a former rapper who was played on the BBC and gave up a comfortable life for jihad, was a friend of Ahmed Kasper Mikhaimar, a 20-year-old convicted burglar, now on a life sentence after Mikhaimar and a gang “stabbed and hacked a schoolboy to death with knives, swords and a meat cleaver because he lived on the wrong side of the street”.

The most intriguing Salafi-criminal link is Choukri Ellekhlifi (a.k.a. Abu Hujama), Emwazi’s long-time friend. Ellekhlifi had been arrested with two other men—Mohammed Elyasse Taleouine and Mohammed Ibrahim—in August 2012 for a string of brutal robberies in Belgravia using a stun gun. Astonishingly, they were released on bail, “and it appears that at this point Ellekhlifi fled the country and traveled to Syria”. Taleouine would be arrested in January 2013 on firearms charges after police caught him in a counterterrorism operation. Ellekhlifi was killed on Aug. 11, 2013, in Syria fighting for Nusra.

Another link that should not be missed is Moazzam Begg, a “longstanding member[] of the UK jihadist scene,” who happens to be a leading CAGE spokesman. Emwazi was in touch with CAGE from 2009 until at least January 2012.

These were the circles Emwazi was moving in; which exact members he knew and their influence on him, time will tell.


The next solid data point we have for Emwazi is May 2009, when he tried—under the name “Muhammad ibn Muazzam”—to travel to Tanzania. This is the infamous “safari” that Emwazi and CAGE claim Emwazi was prevented from going on, which began his descent into radicalisation. In reality, British authorities suspect Emwazi wanted to go via Tanzania to join al-Shabab in Somalia; the Tanzanian government thinks Emwazi wanted to commit terrorism on Tanzanian soil.

CAGE’s version claims that Emwazi was detained for twenty-four hours in Dar es-Salaam, “without food or drink, being threatened by officers armed with guns and sticks,” and that Emwazi was then denied entry to Tanzania “[w]ithout being given an official reason”. During Emazi’s trip home, he was interrogated by MI5 in the Netherlands who said they knew he was planning to go for jihad in Somalia, according to CAGE. CAGE say that British intelligence tried to recruit Emwazi as an agent—which could well be true, and so much the better. CAGE also claims that Emwazi’s fiancée was scared-off by security services harassment. By CAGE’s telling this was the beginning of a long campaign by the security services to torment Emwazi, which eventually drove him into the arms of ISIS.

CAGE’s version of events contains a curious error: it says Emwazi made this trip in August 2009—this being part of the narrative that Emwazi was a happy-go-lucky boy who had just graduated and was going on a lad’s adventure holiday. It is possible CAGE has simply made an error: It is not clear exactly when Emwazi first contacted CAGE—the Washington Post’s exposé says only that contact was first established in 2009—so perhaps Emwazi first contacted CAGE in August 2009 and CAGE assumed the event had taken place immediately preceding contact. But the evidence that this took place in May 2009 is strong.

An Independent report from May 2010 refers to Emwazi and his two comrades—”Abu Talib … and a German friend”—as having travelled to Somalia in “May last year”. Thanks to a report in the Times last Saturday, we now know who the other two men were—Ali Adorus, 27, an east Londoner who is now in jail in Ethiopia for terrorism offences, and Marcel Schrodl, a 23-year-old German national on a suspended sentence in Germany after being found with false documents—and we can be certain that this trip took place in May 2009 because Tanzania’s Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe has shared the records of the arrests of the three men. We also know that the men’s detention had nothing to do with Britain: Emwazi, Adorus, and Schrodl were denied entry to Tanzania because they were “very drunk,” were “insulting our immigration staff and … failed to explain why they had come to Tanzania”. Chances are this was a final blow-out in the manner of the 9/11 death pilots, who reportedly got drunk and enlisted the services of prostitutes prior to their suicide-massacre.

An investigation by The Mail on Sunday found links between Schrodl and Denis Cuspert, a German national who was formerly a rapper under the name “Deso Dogg” and who now goes by Abu Talha al-Alman. Cuspert is an important propagandist for ISIS, for which he was designated as a global terrorist by the U.S. State Department last month. Cuspert appeared in an ISIS beheading video in November 2014. (Intriguingly, according to German media, Cuspert’s “wife” was an FBI informant, who was pulled out of Syria once ISIS began a massive crackdown on spies in its ranks.) Schrodl claims to have given up on jihad but German intelligence still regards him as a “person of interest” in its ongoing struggle with domestic radicalism.

Both Schrodl and Cuspert are said by German intelligence to have been “radicalised by Mohammed Mahmoud, the Austrian-born leader of banned Islamist group Millatu Ibrahim.” Mahmoud (a.k.a. Abu Usama al-Gharib) was in prison between 2007 and 2011 for material support to al-Qaeda. On release, he announced, “I am ready to die for my religion any time,” and gave indications of wanting to succeed Anwar al-Awlaki as al-Qaeda’s leading English-language propagandist. Mahmoud had been arrested in Turkey, but was released last August in exchange for ISIS releasing some Turkish hostages. Mahmoud was supposed to be kept under surveillance but went missing. A report in October placed Mahmoud in Raqqa City, and ISIS propaganda in November showed him surrounded by decapitated corpses in the city. Mahmoud is said to have married Ahlam an-Nasr, known as the “poet of the Islamic State”.

Second only to London in Europe, Vienna is a hub of Salafi jihadism, acting mostly as a place where holy warriors are recruited and funds are raised and stored. Home not only to Mahmoud but men like Mirsad Omerović (a.k.a. Abu Tejma), Vienna is the key node in the facilitation networks that move Salafi jihadists from Europe through the Balkans to the Fertile Crescent. To find that Emwazi’s network overlapped with Vienna’s is not surprising, and it will be intriguing to find out if these networks had anything to do with facilitating Emwazi’s trip to Syria.


On Sept. 11, 2009, Emwazi attended a protest of about 1,500 people outside Harrow Central Mosque in north London. While the Muslims who partook in the rally did so under the banner of a counter-demonstration against the English Defence League (EDL), Emwazi held aloft the Black Standard, the Qaedaist Shahada, and nobody seems to have said anything. Moreover, another speaker at that rally was Michael Adebolajo, the murderer of Lee Rigby and somebody who was also already in contact with CAGE.

In his speech, Adebalajo said: “[Non-Muslims] are pigs. Allah says they are worse than cattle. Do not be scared of them. And do not turn your back to them. Don’t be scared of them, or police, or the cameras.” (Referring to unbelievers as “cattle” is a fairly common slur from Muslim extremists. One notable case is Mehdi Hasan.)

Emwazi and Adebolajo also attended the Woolwich mosque in south London. The mosque denies any knowledge of Emwazi’s attendance, but concedes that it doesn’t track such things so it is quite possible he did.

There is no evidence of Emwazi and Adebolajo having interacted, but this cross-over in associations means that the two men were moving in the same polluted waters that are recruiting people to Islamist violence in the British capital, and only three options present themselves: (1) both Emwazi and Adebolajo were recruited by the same people and were kept in separate cells; (2) the two men were recruited by different networks, so never knew of one-another; or (3) both Emwazi and Adebolajo were recruited into the same network by the same people and did know of one-another but took steps to keep this association covert.


According to the CAGE profile of Emwazi, in late September 2009 Emwazi left for Kuwait—apparently to avoid further harassment from the security services. Whatever the reason, over the next eight months, Emwazi would travel back and forth between Britain and Kuwait.

In February 2010, Emwazi was hired by an IT firm, and was “given a three-month probation period, earning 300 Kuwaiti dinars (£657) per month, plus 50 dinars (£109) expenses, and promised five per cent commission on business he brought in.” His former boss says, “He was the best employee we ever had.”

In April 2010, Emwazi disappeared back to Britain. CAGE claims that Emwazi was subjected to a six-hour interrogation at Heathrow in on June 2, 2010, and was denied the ability to leave by the security forces. Emwazi’s visa for Kuwait was cancelled. Emwazi complained to and met with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on July 24, 2010. He was told to file a formal complaint but never seems to have done so. Emwazi’s father is reported to have gone to Kuwait in December 2010 to clear his son’s name, and found that the Kuwaitis were unaware of the problem with Emwazi.

On June 3, 2010, Emwazi got back in touch with CAGE. CAGE advised him that his detention by British security was “blackmail”—that London had leaned on Kuwait City to cancel his visa because Emazi had refused to become an MI5 agent—and advised him to complain to his MP and a “sympathetic journalist,” of which, at the time, there were a great number.

Emwazi and CAGE’s common interest went further than civil liberties. The emails detail Emwazi’s deep sympathy for Aafia Siddiqui, “Lady Al-Qaeda”. If CAGE ever pushed back at Emwazi’s devotion to an attempted murderess, the emails don’t show it. Given that CAGE is devoted to providing Siddiqui is an innocent victim, unjustly imprisoned by the U.S., this is hardly surprising.

The penultimate email between Emwazi and CAGE was on Jan. 8, 2012. The only email after that is a suggestive one from CAGE’s research/executive director and public face Asim Qureshi. Dated Jan. 13, 2014, Qureshi writes: “I was wondering if you could send me your number. Inshallah it will be good to catch up and speak to you about a matter that has come up for me.” This is seven months before Emwazi murdered James Foley. As far as can be told, Emwazi did not reply.

In his Feb. 26 press conference, Qureshi said, “after January 2012 I know nothing about [Emwazi] until a journalist from the Washington Post approaches me,” and Qureshi claimed only to have made the connection between the masked man in the ISIS videos and Emwazi after this prompting several days before the press conference. This leaves quite an important question about why Qureshi had thought, after two years of silence, to get back in touch with Emwazi, thirteen months before Qureshi says he realised that “Jihadi John” was Emwazi.

In December 2010 and early 2011, Emwazi had contacted the Daily Mail’s Robert Verkaik, and tried to sell his story. Verkaik remembers a thorough-going paranoid with a persecution complex and threats to kill himself.

Little is known of Emwazi’s life between early 2011 and his disappearance.

“By January 2012, Emwazi was looking at ways of evading the security services and the scrutiny he was being put under,” the Telegraph reports. According to the CAGE profile, through 2012 Emwazi is said to have passed a SELTA teaching English language course and applied to English language centres in Saudi Arabia, but was rejected.

In 2013, at his father’s urging, Emwazi changed his name to Mohammed al-Ayan, attempting to wrong-foot the security services, before attempting to travel to Kuwait one last time. Three weeks later, Emwazi disappeared. Emwazi seems to have been inside Syria by July 2013, and initially joined Nusra. Emwazi’s parents reported him missing in August 2013. [Correction: the initial Washington Post exposé says that Emwazi “is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012“. If this is true it raises even more questions, such as: Did Emwazi travel back to Britain and then travel again to Syria in 2013? How did he evade detection if so? And why did Emwazi’s family take so long to report him missing?]

When Emwazi defected to ISIS is unclear but it can be assumed that it was before the outbreak of hostilities between ISIS and all other insurgent forces—including Salafi jihadists generally and al-Qaeda specifically—in January 2014.

There are conflicting reports about what the Emwazi family thinks about this. The family are back in Kuwait, living in Taima, a “rundown area” of Jahra City. Emwazi’s father, Jassem, who is being questioned in Kuwait, is reported by a source familiar with the Kuwaiti investigation to have said that Emwazi’s mother, Ghaneya, “screamed ‘that is my son'” when the Foley video was put out, and Jassem was also “sure it was his son”. There are indeed reports that Jassem had called his son a “dog, an animal and a terrorist,” and when Mohammed has called Jassem as he journeyed to Syria to ask for his blessing, it is reported that Jassem replied: “fuck you. I hope you die before you arrive in Syria.” Yet reports from Kuwaiti media say that Jassem has said there was no proof his son was ISIS’ masked killer.

Mohammed Emwazi himself, however, is said to have relayed an apology to his family for the “trouble the revelation of his identity has caused“. While the British have refused to confirm that Emwazi is “Jihadi John,” “two U.S. congressional sources” did confirm this to CNN. And the ISIS defector who said he saw Emwazi behead Japanese hostage Kenji Goto appears to answer the question of whether—since the murders took place largely off-screen—Emwazi actually carried out the decapitations of the hostages.

3 thoughts on “Mohammed Emwazi’s Path To The Islamic State

  1. Pingback: CAGE Still Has Questions To Answer About Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: Who Killed The Anti-Assad Imam In London? | The Syrian Intifada

  3. Pingback: An Update On The Anti-Assad Imam Killed In London | The Syrian Intifada

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